Lately, I’ve grown increasingly frustrated with politics. I know most Americans are, because our political system these days really is pretty much broken. And on top of that, I’ve been pretty frustrated with everything. For some reason this concussion has been a real emotional roller-coaster, and I seem to go through my days getting irritated at the drop of a hat. (Physically I’m much better, but mentally and psychologically life’s still very challenging.) But I think my frustration with politics goes deeper than that.
I first became interested in politics because it was a good proxy for discussing issues that were deeply important to me. This started before I ever went to grad school, but even today I’m interested in politics because it gets people in general discussing an interesting topic. I’m actually interested in thinking through deep questions with people other than my fellow grad students. It’s one of the reasons I love teaching so much, actually. And politics often focuses our attention and gets whole societies to a point where they’re interested in discussing those issues. For example, when New York decided a few years back to legalize gay marriage, you got people in my neighborhood talking about whether they agreed with that move or not. Most people I met (from my barber to my neighbor to the lady I met on a longish bus ride) seemed to have an opinion about homosexuality and marriage. Some of these opinions were better formulated than others, of course, and I didn’t agree with everyone. But it was paying attention to politics that was letting us have those conversations in the first place.
But lately I’ve soured on this whole approach, because ethics and politics really are quite different. I’ll give you an example. I usually describe myself as pro-choice but anti-abortion. That means that if you asked me personally whether I approved of abortion, or whether I would have one myself, I’d probably say no. I’d probably recommend that a good friend avoid it in most circumstances, out of love for her. But I’m equally against the government banning abortion. Some of my reasons are practical: I think the best way to cut back on abortions is to cut back on the need for abortions, through a combination of contraception and support services that make pregnancy and/or motherhood more feasible. On top of that, I have some major issues imposing morality through the law. It feels coercive, and I also am not crazy about it from a Christian perspective. (My religion has a lot to say about the limits of external constraints.) My point here isn’t so much about abortion, it’s much bigger than that. With most issues, if you asked me whether ________ should be legal, we’d be having a much different conversation than if you asked me whether _______ was right.
This crystallized a bit for me last night, when I saw a picture a friend shared (here) on the gun debate. On one level, I didn’t really agree with the articles’ insinuation that stricter gun controls might have prevented the Connecticut shooting. I’m a big fan of having less guns at hand because that lowers the risk that someone incapable of controlling her actions might get ahold of them – and I think restricting access to highly lethal kinds of guns would help on that count. I’m sure my pro-gun right friends would disagree with me here, or else they’d think rights were more important than outcomes. But on the other hand, I don’t think making abortions illegal necessarily means less people will have abortions. So it’s entirely possible I’m wrong and gun-control laws won’t fix the problem. It’s a conversation worth having.
But even as I thought about that, it struck me this wasn’t even the conversation I was really interested in. At the risk of blaming the victim, which I really don’t want to do, I would love to ask the Connecticut shooter’s mother whether she feels any guilt for having so many guns on hand. Even if I have a right to own guns and never would use them to shoot school children myself, I do think that when you exercise that right in a certain way you create a dangerous situation that you can’t control entirely yourself. When that situation goes as bad as it did in Connecticut last month, I think a virtuous person should feel bad (if she was still alive) that her decision had led to such tragedy. Just like you should feel bad if you didn’t properly lock up your gun and the neighbor’s kid got shot by accident when she and your own kid found it and played with it. And just like a courtroom officer should feel regretful if a defendant grabbed his improperly-secured gun and used it to shoot the judge. It’s not guilt in the straightforward sense, but there is an element of unnecessary risk in situations like this. And if you have a good character, the fact that you took that unnecessary risk should bother you.
The law can’t address things like this. I certainly wouldn’t want to criminalize accidents like this – but if a friend was involved in something like this and wasn’t upset, that would worry me. When I see friends so focused on their right (liberty) to own and use a gun that they don’t seem to question whether owning a gun in a certain circumstance is right/good in the more general sense, that bothers me. And the more I think about it, that’s the conversation I’m interested in: the risks of gun-ownership, and the moral problem of relying on violence to prevent violence. Talking about gun control laws doesn’t really get at that conversation because it’s all bound up in the realm of rights rather than getting at character. Talking about rights generally leaves me cold these days, so maybe that’s not so surprising.
I’m not trying to say politics is pointless. I think it has a big role to play, because in principle it should make sure individuals and societies have enough resources so people can live the good life. As the saying goes, where there is no bread, there is no Torah. But I also think we – I – focus too much on the law as a proxy for morality. I’m scared of being judgmental, or I don’t think people would be interested in what I have to say, or whatever. The trouble is that the law isn’t really about morality. There are big reasons to protect fundamental liberties, but that’s really a separate issue from whether it’s right to actually do what those liberties give us the freedom to do.
I think I need to step back and approach issues like this a little differently. Rather than thinking about whether guns should be legal all the time, I think the better question is, should people own/use guns in certain circumstances? And what should I do about it if not? Should I talk about certain issues here? Donate to a local group trying to take guns off the street? Work for political change? Just strike up a conversation with my friends and family?
It’s probably a little bit of each. I guess I just think by sticking to politics, I sometimes miss the bigger picture. So maybe I’ll try talking a little less about politics and more about the problems lurking behind the politics that I really care about.
P.S.: On a related topic, I have another ThinkChristian post up. It’s inspired by a news story where Israeli women were detained by police for praying in the traditional prayer-shawl (which historically was just worn by men), and basically asks how religious people can push for more equality without losing the focus on something beyond ourselves that’s so important in religion. It’s kind of about this whole issue of whether focusing on liberties somehow misses something important, at least in my mind.
P.P.S.: I really am behind reading LJ. I got so far as opening up the page yesterday with the hopes of catching up, but I couldn’t get my brain to focus enough to get very far. I’ve been thinking about you all, though. Hopefully I’ll check back in before too much longer.